Growth Mindset and Sandbox Learning

An Action Research Project by Matthew Hodge           (Art & Design)


This year I intended to examine the concept of the “learning pit” and look at how it could  be used to  develop independence and resilience in a year 10 Art class. The principle of the learning pit is that pupils are put in uncomfortable situations and have to work their own way out of them, which should, after a slight dip, lead to accelerated learning.

MH Learning pit

Figure 1: How the learning pit should work

Whilst the process lends itself to the teaching of concepts and ideas I was concerned with how the pit would work in reality in a practical subject, with on-going work which, requires pupils to refine their work and ideas to a polished state through exploration.

This led to the development of a gentler, more practical focused model which I’ve dubbed “sandbox learning”.

What is the Sandbox?

The Sandbox is a term usually related to play and gaming. The basic principle revolves around giving those playing freedom (within constraints, the actual box) and allowing them to generate their own ideas of play that you, as a controlling influence, can add to and guide to shape but not dictate. For example when a child is first put into a sandbox to play, they begin by testing the sand, running their fingers through it and experiencing the sand as a raw material, with limited methods of control. Next you might develop their understanding of the space by giving them a spade, now they have their previous knowledge of the sand but a new tool which opens up more possibilities of play – digging, scooping etc. Finally, you may give them a bucket which again widens their possibilities. You may as you go along, give examples to the child of how the tools can be used, but you don’t dictate how. You provide tools and an environment for the child to learn, experiment and play in, but not give direct instruction.

This leads to a model that allows pupils to progress in Art, becoming experts in a range of materials and techniques, controlling their own outcomes, whilst allowing the teacher to maintain a big picture. As teacher you know the start and end points, the pupils dictate their own journey as you complicate the road map.

MH project modelFigure 2: Project model

What are the key points the sandbox?

The rules of the sandbox are:

  1. Pupils must be secure in their abilities and know they are rewarded for exploration.
  2. Pupils are not to be given answers. It is up to them to work to find them, e.g. revisit sketchbooks and produce more examples and materials experiments.
  3. Pupils should be presented with a range of options that allow them to reach the goal but should choose their own path.


The project using this approach was based around Picasso and Cubism. At the start of the project all pupils were given a task check sheet that showed them the goals and necessary steps needed to complete the project.

MH Project help sheetFigure 3: Copy of project help sheet

The project sheet provides learning objectives, detailed descriptions of tasks that need to be completed and the links to the assessment objectives. Pupils are expected to refer to this sheet rather than asking the teacher,  ‘what next?’.

When entering the room pupils are expected to be self-organised, finding their books and materials to settle to work, reviewing their own progress and looking for possibilities and solutions. Pupils are given ‘free reign’ over the material and contextual options presented before them.

Should a pupil become stuck it is up to them to un-stick themselves. When in conversation with pupils about their work it is important not to give them answers and solutions to their issues but to either answer their questions with questions that allow them to find the answer or if their need is more practical, to present them with a range of methods for using media, reinforcing the idea that there is no single, right answer.

The benefits of managing projects in this manner

  • Pupils become experts in a range of techniques and materials
  • Pupils have a greater amount of control over their own outcomes and direction, developing personalised outcomes and solutions.
  • Pupils generate their own stretch by becoming more investigative around resources and materials, encouraged to try techniques  which take them off the standard path.


Pupils respond positively to this methodology and are fully able to work independently within the framework. Pupils are proud of their work and take greater ownership of their ideas and environment. Pupils support themselves and their peers, with conversation often happening in the group because they admire each other’s work and want to know each other’s methods. Pupils are articulate about their work and intentions using subject specific language. Pupils’ progress in the group has been good with many regularly and willingly revisiting their own work to make improvements.

Featured image: ‘Sand pit’ by Congerdesign on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0


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